Wild words are tense and dramatic. This tension is partly constructed by the storyteller’s choices around point-of-view.
Wild words only reveal as much information as the listener or reader needs to get to the next step of the story. They play with the gap between the narrator’s/ character’s understanding and the reader’s understanding. They dangle the mysteries in front of the receiver like a carrot. Sometimes third person point-of-view is used, sometimes first person, and less frequently, second person. Whatever point-of-view the story is seen from, it is consistent through the narrative, a rhythm is set up for the listener or reader. When point of view changes unexpectedly, it is for specific dramatic effect, or to move the reader in a specific way. Wild words are courageous. They strive to enable the reader to feel deeply the experience of the characters.
Below is an example of effective use of point-of-view. Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ is told from the point-of-view of the central character, an amateur hunter in Africa in the 1930’s. That is, until the showdown with his prey, the lion. At that point, we see through the lion’s eyes.
Macomber stepped out of the curved opening at the side of the front seat, onto the step and down onto the ground. The lion still stood looking majestically and coolly toward this object that his eyes only showed in silhouette, bulking like some super-rhino. There was no man smell carried toward him and he watched the object, moving his great head a little from side to side. Then watching the object, not afraid, but hesitating before going down the bank to drink with such a thing opposite him, he saw a man figure detach itself from it and he turned his heavy head and swung away toward the cover of the trees as he heard a cracking crash and felt the slam of a 30-06 220-grain solid bullet that bit his flank and ripped in sudden hot scalding nausea through his stomach. He trotted, heavy, big-footed, swinging wounded full-bellied, through the trees toward the tall grass and cover, and the crash came again to go past him ripping the air apart. Then it crashed again and he felt the blow as it hit his lower ribs and ripped on through, blood sudden hot and frothy in his mouth, and he galloped toward the high grass where he could crouch and not be seen and make them bring the crashing thing close enough so he could make a rush and get the man that held it.
Hemingway makes a brave decision here, and it works. He’s a wild writer, not just because of his subject matter, but because of his ability to touch into the evolving nature of his story, and to be brave in his choices around where to tell the story from. To risk.
Tracking The Wild Words
Point-of-view in storytelling and writing is the position that we, as the speaker or author, choose to tell the story from.
Most books these days are written by a narrator that sees inside one character’s head only, and reports other characters’ behaviour. This is limited third person point-of-view. You can also choose to write as an omniscient third-person narrator, one who has God-like powers to move at will, and see the activities as well as inner lives of every character. In dramatic third-person narration, only external events are described. The narrator never comments on the characters thoughts. The final type of third-person narrator is the ‘unreliable’ narrator. This character makes mistakes or misinterpretations. Once the reader realises they have ben fooled into believing incorrect versions of events, they often also considers the character foolish. Nelly, in Wuthering Heights is a classic example. It’s a useful technique to employ in detective stories.
The major alternative to third person narration is to use first person narration, where the voice of narration is one of the characters, and they speak as ‘I’.
You might also consider using second person point-of-view, where the protagonist of other main character is referred to as ‘you’. This is more frequently used in non-fiction than in fiction, but can be a useful stylistic device in all genres.
The wild storyteller always considers how the choice of point-of-view will be received by the listener or reader. In general, a first person narrative will feel more intimate than a third person narrative. However, in first person narration the reader does not have as much perspective on events, and as a writer it can feel limiting. A good part of the tension in stories comes from how and when we hide and reveal information. We only want to reveal as much information as the reader needs to get to the next step of the story. Choices around the revealing of information will determine our choices of point of view, and vice versa.
When the lead character knows more than the reader, the reader will admire their cleverness (think of Sherlock Holmes). But if the balance is tipped too far that way, the reader can end up feeling humiliated. Conversely, when the reader knows more than the lead character, they feel clever. However, if the balance is tipped too far in that direction the reader can end up despising the lead character for their stupidity. We’re playing with fine lines here.
When you tell stories on the page, or in conversation, it may be helpful to bear the following questions in mind:
-Which channels of information will the narrator use to convey the story to the listener or reader?
This might include:
-The speaker/author’s words, thoughts, perceptions, feelings
-The characters’ words and actions
-The characters’ thoughts, perceptions and feelings?
-How close, or distant from the action, will the narrator be?
- How close or distant from the story do you want the listener or reader to feel?
When we tell a story from a certain point of view, we need to drop down into the physical experience of how it is to live in the body of that character. It’s here that we draw on our embodied experience as writers-in-the-wild. For example, if you write from the perspective of a five-year old child, use the language they would use. How would that child speak? How would they see the world? Probably their vocabulary is limited. When you’re five years old and three foot high, you mostly have a view of feet, legs, and dangling hands. At that time in a person’s life immediate experience predominates over thinking and reasoning capacities. Smells, sounds, tastes, and how things feel when you touch them will feature strongly in your narrative. Equally if a wild storyteller speaks in the voice of an eagle, she climbs the mountain and observes the world from that place. She researches in order to understand a point-of-view that she is not familiar with. The wild writer is not afraid to become another, to experience another’s perspective, their emotional, and psychological worlds.
Think of a captive tiger. He has no choice of point-of-view. There is barely room to turn around in his change. Neither does he have the physical space to vary the distance he has from real, and/or imagined threats. This leaves him exposed, and frightened. He feels he is always visible and vulnerable to attack. In his fear he either cowers rigid in the corner of the cage, or paces relentlessly and without purpose. As caged storytellers and writers, we are not much different.
It’s frightening to take another point-of-view, to put ourselves inside another body and mind. When we do this we have to experience what they experience, feel how they feel, think how they think. That makes us vulnerable. We fear making a mistake and our story being ridiculed. To deal with the fear we often firstly absolve ourselves from responsibility for our storytelling process and decide to follow the advice of a writing tutor, or other expert, or a book on technique. We also often do one of the following things:
-We stick rigidly with the same point of view, regardless of whether it’s appropriate at that moment in our story or not. In doing this we close down to tunnel vision. We cling to the security seemingly (but falsely) offered by the single view.
-The other strategy to avoid the fear is to flip randomly between many points-of-view, without being clear why we are doing it.
Fear On The Page
Below is an example of inconsistent point-of-view. It’s a student’s poem about being on holiday, where romance, good food and sun come together and make her feel utterly complete. It includes a section about the sunflowers in the field raising their heads in the morning, and following the movement of the sun. It’s a long poem, so I won’t put it all down here, but here are three key lines:
‘I raised my head to the light.’
‘The sun looked down benevolently on the audience of open faces below.’
‘The mouse moved with the shifting shadow, staying cool under his parasol.’
There are three points-of-view here. They are those of the sunflower, the sun, and the mouse. By changing point-of-view three times in twenty-five lines, the reader ends up completely disorientated. Similar to a camera that keeps whizzing from one point of view to another, the viewer becomes dizzy with the movement. Here, the writer couldn’t stay with the strength of the emotions surrounding the memories of the time described. Thus, she changes point-of-view, to avoid overwhelming feelings.
The caged storyteller’s fear of entering wholeheartedly into the point of view of another, and of playing with different points of view to find the most effective, negatively impacts the storytelling. Information is revealed weakly. The listener or reader misses key dramatic moments. They never touch the emotional heart of the story. It’s often when we hesitate as we take another point-of-view, that it doesn’t sound credible and believable. If we throw ourselves wholeheartedly in, it usually works. Our choices around point-of-view, must be fuelled by creative inspiration, not by fear.